News 8 Now Investigates – Local divide: How partisan politics force local candidates to choose sides

La Crosse political analyst Joe Heim says independent candidates face uphill battle as party politics spreads in local elections

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) — Candidates for local Wisconsin government races received support from political parties. National political strategies are forcing candidates to choose a side or likely lose an election.

Political endorsements are nothing new, but the frequency at the local level is growing. For example, Republican gubernatorial candidate Rebecca Kleefisch, endorsed 48 school board candidates this election.

One expert questions the impact this will have on the health of local democracy. As the competitive nature of politics ramps up, candidates find out they cannot run for office alone.

“It takes money to run a campaign,” said Rob Abraham, who was elected to the La Crosse County Board.

Abraham found that out running for the board.

“Beating a 21-year incumbent is tough,” Abraham said.

Abraham, whose values align with conservatives, accepted an endorsement and monetary contributions from the La Crosse Republican party – $2,100 total.

“It’s nothing new for the Democrat Party,” said Bill Feehan, chair of the La Crosse County Republican Party. “I ran for county board in 2010 and Congressman Ron Kind, a Democrat, sent an endorsement letter for my opponent.”

Feehan said this has been a political strategy for decades. The La Crosse County Republican Party endorses candidates to try to balance the people who represent county government, Feehan said.

“There were six independents who ran. Five of the six lost to Democrats,” Feehan said. “If you look at the nine races where we supported candidates, we won six of those races. So, I think there’s a pretty good case to be made that if the Republican Party hadn’t backed those candidates, we would not be electing any conservative county supervisors.”

A check into candidates who disclosed their campaign contributions shows that the La Crosse Republican Party contributed more than $13,000 toward eight candidates for the spring election Tuesday. In 2016, the party gave $2,000 amongst five candidates.

“If you have a chart on campaign financing in the United State or Wisconsin, it looks like a ski hill,” said Joe Heim, a La Crosse political analyst. “In other words, every year we break records from the last time.”

Independent candidates are suffering in elections, said Heim, who cited La Crosse County Board incumbent Vicki Burke as an example.

“She’s a long-time Democrat,” Heim said. “She was not listed on the Democratic website or the Democratic list of who they support.”

Burke lost to Abraham on Tuesday.

“You wonder just how partisan these offices should be frankly,” Heim said.

La Crosse Democratic Party Chair William Garcia said the party is there to help amplify a candidate’s message.

“We’re providing the infrastructure to get their message out,” Garcia said. “We are not providing them with the message.”

Garcia said there is nothing wrong with party involvement.

“There is naturally going to be some overlap, because the people who care about federal and state elections are the people who care about local elections,” Garcia said.

La Crosse Common Council President Barb Janssen disagrees.

“It’s really frustrating,” said Janssen, who lost in a race for the La Crosse County Board.

Partisan politics creates a hostile environment in local government, she said.

“Just the personal attacks. I can take a large degree of that,” Janssen said. “No doubt my skin’s pretty thick, but it wears on you after a while.”

Heim said this brings political gridlock to people’s own back yard.

“That’s unfortunate, because it means they don’t get a lot done,” Heim said.

Partisan politics are not all bad. Heim said people start to pay attention more when they feel like they have a voice that represents their own.

“That’s what representation is all about,” Heim said.

It can also place a new perspective in an office.

“I won by 53 percent of the vote, but there’s 47 percent of the people who didn’t vote for me,” Abraham said. “I represent them equally. I need to listen to their voices, and I need to represent their voices.”

The results of Tuesday night reflect who showed up to the polls to vote.

“If you want to make a change, start local,” Janssen said.

La Crosse County voters elected seven new people to the board, including includes three races with incumbents on the ballot. The County reported a nearly 30 percent voter turnout for the spring election — a 5 percent increase from last year.

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